Why is Israel negotiating with Syria, and what happened in Lebanon? One of these events may be the Middle East's most important development for 2008. Hint: it isn't the first of them. Let's consider why the two sides are "negotiating," including the fact that they aren't negotiating. There isn't going to be a deal. Both sides know it, yet have good reason to be seen talking, indirectly that is. START WITH six factors that account for Israeli government policy: 1. Keep Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in power. It's not the only issue, but it's certainly there. Olmert wants to claim he's involved in such important negotiations that it's a sin to interfere. What's more important, he asks, envelopes filled with cash, or peace? Olmert has been using this strategy with Palestinian talks for a while, and is now jumping on a different horse. This doesn't mean he's going to give away national security assets to save himself. The beauty of this strategy is that he doesn't have to. Just making headlines achieves this goal. 2. Show everyone Israel wants peace. The country is indeed ready to take chances and make compromises - though only if sufficiently rewarded. By proving this, the government seeks to muster support from Western governments, media and public opinion, as well as secure its base within Israel. 3. Give Syria reason to show restraint. If Syria is gabbing away in contacts that are all-win, no-lose for its dictatorship, it won't want to wreck them by too much terror or another Hizbullah war on Israel. Keeping things quiet in the north lets Israel focus on the south, the Gaza Strip. 4. Keep Turkey happy. Turkey is an important friend of Israel and has tied its prestige to this initiative. This factor is not of real importance, but it should be on the list. 5. Show the Palestinians that Israel has an alternate partner as a way of pressuring them. Israel gains a freer hand for dealing with them (see Point 3, above) by at least momentarily widening the gap between Palestinian and Syrian interests. Many of those backing the Syrian track don't believe progress with the Palestinians is possible. If Point 1 is most important for Olmert's political calculations, Point 5 is central for coalition partner Defense Minister Ehud Barak. 6. Media coverage and political statements ignore or misinterpret the fact that Israel isn't negotiating with Syria. It's merely holding more systematic, indirect contacts to establish whether Israeli preconditions for direct negotiations can be met. Even though the answer is no, this means Israel can do this at little cost and no substantive concessions. What Israel is doing is totally different from the proposals of Senator Barack Obama, which would bring disaster should he becomes US president. If Syria is ready to move away from Iran, stop backing terrorist groups, be ready to make full peace with Israel and meet other conditions (limiting forces in the Golan Heights, early warning stations, etc.), the talks can advance. When this doesn't happen, the talks will either collapse or enter a long, obviously dead, slow-motion process. This game is not a good thing since it weakens the struggle against the Iran-led bloc, which is the region's most important issue. Still, it is unlikely to inflict material damage to Israel's strategic position. WHAT, THEN, are Syria's motives? It, too, has good reasons to play the game:
Syria's main problem is international isolation. Its alliance with Iran, in addition to its sponsoring terror against Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, has brought Syria serious diplomatic and economic costs. Negotiating with Israel bails it out of jail. The precedent is 1991-2000. Without concession or policy shift, the dictatorship survived a decade when it was vulnerable (due to the USSR's collapse and America's Kuwait victory). Understandably, it wants to repeat this triumph.
The Damascus regime argues that if the West and Israel want it to talk peace, they'd better treat Syria right. Forget about investigating Syrian-planned murders in Lebanon; cancel the tribunal trying the regime's highest level for murder.
Ditto forget about punishing Syria for building a secret nuclear weapon installation with the help of North Korea. Ignore Syria's backing for insurgents in Iraq, who kill Iraqis and American soldiers.
Demand more concessions, which might be obtained without any on Syria's part.
Stall for time in the belief that Obama will become president and follow a pro-Syria policy. This is what they're saying in Damascus.
Focus on what Syria really wants: consolidating control over Lebanon without interference from abroad. The world, especially the UN and State Department, did nothing to stop a Hizbullah-Iran-Syria victory in Lebanon; then compounded the betrayal by pretending it was a step toward stability. This probably would have happened without the Israel-Syria drama, but that couldn't hurt, reasoned Syria's rulers.
Of course, the idea that Syria wants real peace, will recognize Israel, move away from Iran, abandon Hamas or Hizbullah, and cease terrorist meddling in Iraq is the purest nonsense. All these steps are against the regime's vital interests. Yet, as demonstrated above, it can play the talks game without doing any of these things.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has fallen to Hizbullah, another state added to Iran's bloc. This catastrophe is intensified by ignoring it. One day, the tragedy might be seen as equivalent to the 1938 sacrifice of Czechoslovakia at Munich to appease Germany. Bashar is no Hitler (perhaps a closer parallel would be to Germany's junior partner, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini), but the United States and Europe, especially France, have acted toward Lebanon as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did in Munich.
And this is even without Iran having nuclear weapons, or Obama being in the White House. Unless the West wakes up, what could come next may be far worse.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.